When Morella Aguado came to the United States in 1983 from Nicaragua, it was by necessity. She was five months old, and her family was fleeing the Sandanista regime because her uncle was a political prisoner. Life was hard in her new country. Though she received a green card, her entire family lived in a single room, and her dad supported them by picking green peppers and working at 7-Eleven. They eventually returned to their native country when the government changed a decade later.
When Aguado returned a second time to study law at the University of Miami, it was by choice. She believed she had a better chance of succeeding in a country, which unlike Nicaragua, rewarded hard work and wasn’t ruled by corruption and nepotism. To Aguado, the United States represented pure opportunity: Anyone with a high GPA and LSAT scores was eligible to pursue a legal career. She became an immigration attorney and now fights to make the transition to American life easier for other immigrants. “It’s not just my job. It’s my passion,” says Aguado, now 33. “I know what it is like to suffer to succeed in this country, and my personal feelings provide a lot of motivation.”
Aguado is on a mission to inspire young immigrants to appreciate the opportunities they have here. “I want to tell them, ‘I was once in your position, and going to McDonald’s was a big treat,’” she says. “Now they see I’m an attorney and that I succeeded, and it was all because of my education. I want them to know that the sky really is the limit.” But she also wants the American public to understand that hardworking immigrants face struggles that others can’t imagine. Aguado was able to attend college and graduate school only because of her green card. “I could get student loans that allowed me to get an education at an expensive private school,” she says. Undocumented immigrants, on the other hand, face numerous barriers that make applying to college difficult and are unable to receive financial aid in most states.
They have a life here. They pay taxes. They have assets.
Education isn’t the only barrier. “There are people who’ve had temporary status for 20 years, and they have to renew it every 18 months,” says Aguado. She would like to see immigrants who’ve been in the country at least 10 years, have children or immediate family here, or have created a company or bought a home be eligible to apply for permanent status. “They have a life here,” she says. “They pay taxes. They have assets. They’re contributing as an individual or as an employer by hiring people.”
The cases that tug at her heartstrings the most are clients with clean criminal records who are at risk of sudden deportation. “I help them get work permits and legal status so they won’t be afraid to leave their house each day,” she says. “There’s no better feeling than knowing that I had a part in helping a father or husband stay here, and now his kids can eat.”